11/19/2012 02:30 pm ET Updated Jan 19, 2013

Torn by Justin Lee: Gay Evangelical Writes A Coming Out Story Your Conservative Grandmother Could Love

Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christian Debate by Justin Lee
Reviewed by Lillian Daniel

Raised a Southern Baptist, with two loving parents, Justin Lee didn't want to be gay. But when he revealed that he was only attracted to his own gender, the church he loved acted like he had chosen it. Searching for understanding in high school and college, he was essentially told to cut it out and stop being gay, with Jesus' help.

So much for that idea. Today, Lee leads the Gay Christian Network. And thank God for it.

In Torn, Lee has written a sweet natured but convicting story. At the advice of his pastor, the sharp-witted teenager threw himself into the ex-gay movement. He listened to national speakers testify about turning their sexuality around. Once again, with Jesus' help.

But away from the speaker's podium, the ex-gays told him a different story. Their behavior had changed but the attractions remained. Whether or not they were ex-gay depended on how you defined gay: the inclination or the act. This distinction would later become a lynch pin in Lee's work with the LGBTQ Christian community, something that sets him apart in a noisy and crowded battlefield. Tired of feeling torn, Lee has written a peace-making book.

At his conservative Christian university, Lee joined a campus ministry group searching for a safe place to connect with God and share his inner life with the church. He also joined the gay students group, whose numbers increased with his enthusiastic involvement. But as a Christian who was not sexually active, he felt alone in both groups, unable to be himself.

With the Christians, he worried about being gay. With the GLBTQ crowd, he worried about not being gay enough. Apparently, it wasn't easy to be a non-dancing, non-drinking, young, gay Christian - willing to wait to have sex but unwilling to deny wanting it.

In this book for our age, the Internet plays a key role in Lee's story. It was through chat rooms, emails and blogs that the GCN was born. It's also how Lee found community, both loving and hurtful. In one heart-wrenching story, he describes being abruptly banned from his favorite Christian Internet chat room simply for being gay. Left with no way to communicate with the confidantes he had met on line, he fell into despair.

Lee is beyond charitable throughout his story. He's written a book that your Southern Baptist grandmother could read and then sigh at the end, "Well, bless his sweet heart." Careful to throw in plenty of good-natured comments like, "I am sure they meant well..." he often writes like the scrupulous "God boy" he wanted to be as a child.

But the stories speak for themselves. By the time he tells us that gays aren't destroying the church, Christians are, we have enough evidence to convict.

Now, as a woman senior minister of a thriving "open and affirmng" liberal church surrounded by conservative evangelicals in Western suburbs of Chicago, I didn't need Justin Lee to tell me that the ex gay movement doesn't work. Sometimes, the victims of their road show end up, injured, in my church. But every time one of their ex-gay speakers gets caught with their pants down, another takes his place on the lucrative speaking circuit's victory lap.

What I would have liked to hear were more stories about churches like mine, where we can do your gay wedding and where our teenagers quip that "our church put the 'bi' in Bible." But churches like that were not part of Lee's story, and he's still going home with the one who brought him to the dance.

Evangelicals and conservative Christians need to read this important book. It was written for them. It could really change things.

But now, can I ask a sort of whiney favor from my little corner of the Christian campground? Could someone please write a book about growing up gay in a church that was open, affirming, loving and supportive? Because there are so many churches working to make it get better.

Do people only want to read the sad stories, the ones that convict conservative Christians? Or might there be a memoir out there by a happy gay Christian kid where the description of the church could actually appeal to other people?

Because there are a growing number of gay friendly churches out there. And if we want to encourage them, their story needs to be told too. A little praise goes a long way.

So for more on how this book challenged me personally, check out my crankier essay: "So Why Don't They Just Come to My Church?"